Seeing how it’s 2017, you’d think that whitewashing would be a thing of the past. Every other week, though, it feels like another news story comes out about whitewashing in the entertainment industry. From Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, this controversial subject seems to be more relevant now than ever. The latest case is Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson.
People weren’t sure what to think when it was announced that Fiennes would be playing the King of Pop in Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon. An addition to the Urban Myths series, this episode centers on a road trip Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando supposedly took. Jackson’s 18-year-old daughter Paris had some choice words after the trailer hit. She described the portrayal as offensive and insulting, tweeting, “it honestly makes me want to vomit.” Following this backlash, it was announced that Sky Arts would pull the episode of the anthology series. This begs the question, “Was it wrong for Fiennes to play Michael Jackson?”
@TheMJCast i'm so incredibly offended by it, as i'm sure plenty of people are as well, and it honestly makes me want to vomit.
— Paris-Michael K. J. (@ParisJackson) January 11, 2017
Before we answer that question, it’s important to acknowledge that Jackson is one of the hardest figures to portray on screen. This is partially because the public’s opinion of him keeps changing. At the height of his success, Jackson was beloved and idolized by everyone. After he was accused of child sexual abuse, however, people started to sing a different tune. For years, Jackson was the butt of every pedophile joke until his untimely death in 2009. Realizing that the world had lost a legend, we all focused more on the positive impact Jackson had. This past June, though, new evidence surfaced that supported those sexual abuse allegations.
So even in death, the public has a mixed opinion on Jackson. To really do him justice on screen, an actor would have to be tasteful and respectful while also acknowledging his questionable behavior. Of course we’ll probably never know if Fiennes did Jackson justice since Elizabeth, Michael and Marlon has been cancelled. Even the trailer has seemingly disappeared. Of course even if Fiennes hit it out of the park, it wouldn’t have mattered to some viewers. Why? Because he’s a white man playing an African American man!
To be fair, the people behind Urban Myths likely would’ve hired a black actor if this story took place during Jackson’s early years. However, the story takes place after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By that point, Jackson’s skin color was no longer dark-brown. He was virtually unrecognizable and practically looked like a white man. South Park even had an entire episode where the police try to frame Jackson for being a rich black guy, but withdraw when they believe he might be white. So on one hand, it made sense to hire a Caucasian actor to play Jackson. On the other hand, isn’t this the definition of blackface?
While not necessarily the same thing as putting on minstrel show makeup, it’s easy to see why this casting choice would enrage some people. Was there really a better alternative, though? If Urban Myths had enlisted a black actor, they would’ve had to drape him in white makeup. Isn’t that basically the same thing as whiteface? In any case, it would probably look like something out of White Chicks and that’s the last thing we need.
Perhaps the best way to address this casting choice is by comparing it to the 1959 film, Imitation of Life. For those that don’t know, this classic drama centers on a black mother and her daughter Sarah Jane, played by Susan Kohner. Since Sarah Jane inherited her father’s fair skin, she’s often mistaken for a white girl. This raises numerous issues regarding race that are still relevant today. In real life, Kohner’s mother was notably a Mexican actress and her father was an Austrian-Hungarian agent.
Although Kohner wasn’t black, audiences weren’t outraged when Imitation of Life hit the scene. Granted, you could argue this is because it came out in 1959 and not 2017. Even decades later, though, people don’t view this casting choice as offensive. Imitation of Life was actually deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film didn’t hurt Kohner’s career either. She went on to score an Oscar nomination and had two successful sons: Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz.
People felt it was okay for Kohner to portray a white young adult because it serviced the story. So if you really think about it, Joseph Fiennes playing Michael Jackson wouldn’t have been much different. Would it have it have been a good performance? Well, that’s hard to say without actually seeing the episode. For now, however, it looks like we’ll have to settle for Edward Moss’ impersonation of Jackson in Scary Movie 3 and Scary Movie 4.
Hmmm… would that have been a better casting choice?